Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Lunch with a "Medicine Bearer"


(To start at the beginning of this series, click here)


It’s been a busy week-and-a-half since last I wrote, and even though it’s late and I’m feeling tired, I’m determined to write about some of the events of the past ten days.

And so I sit curled in the armchair tucked away in a corner of my bedroom. Before me a flickering votive candle illuminates my icon of the Scared Heart, that “mystical symbol of divine love” I’m so drawn to. I’ve stilled myself, and am very conscious of being in a “sacred time and space.” That’s how Father Brandon suggested I think about my prayer time. “Be mindful,” he said, “be intentional in your creating of a sacred time and space where you can just sit and be with God.”

I should say that Fr. Brandon is the priest at St. Aelred’s, the parish I’ve been attending as often as I can for weekday Mass. He’s a Cistercian priest, and St. Aelred was suggested to me by Vince at Dignity as it’s a non-diocesan parish and therefore able to be more welcoming of gay people. And Vince was right. I feel very welcome and accepted at St. Aelred’s. There’s even some P-Flag literature in the foyer, and informational flyers from New Ways Ministries. Old Fr. Brandon is responsible for all of this, which is quite something given that he must be well into his eighties. I guess I thought he wouldn’t be quite so “out there” in his support.

Morning Mass is offered three days a week at St. Aelred’s – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I must admit that I started going there for the more traditional liturgy and environment. They don’t have a statue of the Sacred Heart like at St. Jerome’s but they do have a large portrait of it in an alcove on the right hand side of the church. I make sure I sit in a pew across from it during Mass. It feels like sitting near a trusted friend.

After my second visit to St. Aelred’s, Fr. Brandon came up to me and introduced himself. I told him I used to attend St. Jerome’s but was now trying out the Dignity Mass on Sunday nights at Southside United Methodist. He smiled a warm and understanding smile and said that in the past he had offered Mass for the Dignity community.

After attending Mass for the third time at St. Aelred’s – which was just this past Monday morning – I realized I wanted to talk to Fr. Brandon about my journey with the Church. I felt I could trust him with my questions, my concerns, and my hopes. He happily agreed to meet for coffee when it was convenient for me. We met earlier today.

But before I go any further, I should back up, gather my thoughts, and write a little about the other meeting I recently had with a priest – a woman priest.

I’d met Cathie at the first Dignity Mass I attended about three weeks ago. Initially I was totally taken aback by her and by the whole female priest thing. But her homily touched me deeply, spoke to a part of me that hadn’t been acknowledged, let alone spoken to, by . . . well . . . a regular priest for a very long time.

Afterward, I talked to Cathie and expressed my interest in discussing with her the whole female ordination thing. About a week later she called and asked if we could meet for lunch. It was an enjoyable meeting, though a bit overwhelming as I felt I was receiving a crash course in the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement. Then again, I only have myself to blame as my journalistic instincts kicked in almost immediately and I no doubt overwhelmed Cathie with my many questions.

I still find myself pondering her responses. I can’t deny that they challenge me – and my understanding of church. Cathie maintains, for instance, that both society and the church are in the midst of what she calls a “paradigm shift.” She said that history is full of such shifts and that we can readily discern them if we just take the time to look carefully at how humans have developed as a species and how civilizations and even religions have progressed and changed over the centuries.

“Look around you, James,” she said. “Everything is in crisis – the economy, our relationship with the planet, the church. We’re on the verge of momentous changes across the board – changes that need to happen. I don’t see this chaotic time we’re living through as destructive but rather as a rebirth; a necessary – if at times painful and disorientating – new beginning.”

She insists that the days of what she calls the church’s “celibate male clerical system” are over. “That form of priesthood, that understanding of priesthood, is dying,” she said. “Yet a new understanding is rising within and among the people to take its place. And it’s happening all around the world. It’s such an exciting time, James, don’t you think?”

She must have detected my skepticism, or perhaps my discomfort. Believe me, both were like mini tornadoes in my head, mercilessly buffeting my thoughts.

“But if it’s all new,” I ventured, “why did you insist on being ordained the same way as the men in this system you say is finished?”

“It comes down to justice, James,” Cathie declared determinedly. “Look, a new form of priesthood is coming. In many ways it’s already here. But while ever the old way remains, we as women should be able to be ordained in it. It’s a matter of justice.”

“But aren’t you all excommunicated?” I asked. “I mean, this system you want to be part of doesn’t accept you. Why be part of it?”

Cathie looked at me intently.

“James,” she said softly, “does this system accept you as a gay man? You know it doesn’t, and yet you stay; you want to be part of it. Why?

I was lost for words.

“We stay, James, you and I, because we believe we have something to give to the Church. The Church would be incomplete with out us. One of my mentors is an old Native American woman, and in her culture they have the idea of ‘medicine’ – of healing insight and be-ing that brings wholeness to individuals and the community. I believe with all my heart that our dear Church, our spiritual community, is terribly sick, profoundly unhealthy, and that it’s people like us, people whom those in positions of power dismiss and ‘excommunicate,’ who carry within them the medicine that’s needed to make the Church well, to make it whole. That’s why I stay, James. Not to be part of a sick and dysfunctional system, but because I’m a medicine bearer, as are you. And we’re called to be part of the healing, part of this wonderful movement of the Spirit that is happening all around us. But we have to be within the system to facilitate the healing.”

In relation to this “healing,” Cathie also talked about how she believes that more and more people are “embodying through courageous acts of conscience” the words of a poem by Edwin Markham – words I jotted down in my notebook:

He drew a circle that shut me out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

These words, along with Cathie’s, have given me much to think about during the past few days.

And in thinking about them I came to realize that I needed to speak to a priest – a regular male priest. I couldn’t help it! Somehow I needed to hear affirmed by at least one regular priest the types of things I’d been hearing from gay Catholics and women priests. Part of me feels embarrassed and ashamed that I need the approval of “father.” But that’s not what it’s really about. No, I have to know that the “radical” ideas I’ve been hearing that both excite and scare me, are capable of being accepted by everyone – including those who are so often cast as the “enemy” by these very same ideas. So that’s why I asked if I could meet with Father Brandon for coffee. I know, you could say that his welcoming of gay people at St. Aelred’s indicates that he’s not your “regular” priest. But it’s not the gay stuff that was challenging me but rather all the new ways of thinking about church that I’d been hearing. It was these types of things that I wanted to discuss with Fr. Brandon.

And discuss them we did – this morning.

My journaling about our meeting, however, is going to have to wait. It’s past 1:00 and I have an 8:00 o’clock meeting with my editor.

I will say this before I turn in: Dignity’s request to the chancery for a dialogue forum at next week’s Courage conference has been turned down, so a protest is being planned. Frank disagrees with me that this is newsworthy. It’s nothing but “church infighting about an issue that the rest of us have accepted or are tired of hearing about,” he said. Instead of covering the Courage protest he wants me to help with an upcoming feature article that, according to him, looks at a “much bigger picture, a much bigger story.” This article will explore why young people are abandoning organized religion. Frank could tell I was disappointed that we weren’t going to cover the Courage protest, and so suggested I focus on young gay people for this particular article. I agreed and so arranged with P-flag to make an announcement about my assignment at the end of one of their meetings. I actually obtained quite a few potential contacts – names and phone numbers of young people who might be interested in sharing their reasons for no longer attending church. Quite a few of them, it turns out, are from a Catholic background. And they’re willing to talk.

NEXT: Part 6: Father Brandon

See also the previous installments of The Journal of James Curtis:
Part One: A “Bells and Smells” Kind of Guy
Part Two: A Quiet Visit and an Exhausting Conversation
Part Three: A Journey Begins
Part Four: Carlos

Image: “Herein Lies Our Medicine” by Litina Egungun.


colkoch said...

I have really enjoyed reading this series, and definitely look forward to more installments.

Almost all of my own Native American mentors speak to the same idea of carrying 'medicine' for one's circles. In some respects it's analgous to the Catholic concept of Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but way more elaborate in it's conceptualization--at least in terms of the number of gifts.

And they all say, make sure you don't get in the way of your own medicine. Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow.

PS, I'm stealing the Marham quote for the top of my mast head. It's great. Colleen

Anonymous said...

Uplifting, inspirational, and self-evocative as always!

After being advised by many fellow Catholics recently who don't agree with how I feel about abortion, homosexuality, the priesthood and many other issues, that I should "just be an Episcopalian" seeing ourselves as medicine to heal a sick Church is indeed an encouraging and motivational approach.

I hope and pray that eventually our initiatives will sprout and be able to be harvested to their full abundance in accordance with the Lord's will!